The Sociology in Public Relations

Sociology is not just a discipline from the lofty ivory tower….

The March on Washington with Bayard Rustin, Deputy Director, and Cleveland Robinson, Chairman of Administrative Committee, Fighting for Civil Rights. (O. Fernandez, Library of Congress, PBS)

Sociology is first and foremost the study of populations. Sociology focuses on everyone that makes up a population. Sociology focuses not only on the behaviors of a population, but it also focuses on the attitudes, values and mores of a group of people. It focuses on a population’s oral and written history, but more significantly, the rituals and traditions of a culture. Because you and I make up a population, sociology focuses on our attitudes and values.

More importantly, information derived in sociology forms research that is conducted and compiled. In sociology, populations are defined in a number of ways. A population can be grouped by age, class, race, ethnicity, religious affinity and socio-economic status, in addition to a number other cultural descriptions.

How does sociology equate with public relations?

In sociology, researchers study populations, but in public relations, practitioners study publics.

…And how does sociology relate to the public relations field?

For public relations, sociology is very important for one main reason. Because sociology is a discipline devoted to studying populations, naturally the public relations field would seek it out in understanding their own publics.

Remember, the main goal of public relations is to inform, to persuade, and to build relationships with publics in which they serve. For this reason, sociology functions in conjunction with public relations in a few ways:

  • When undergoing a campaign, public relations relies on studying populations for their attitudes and beliefs. The sociological tools involved help public relations professionals quantify these attitudes to create a campaign that more accurately assesses and addresses the needs of the publics beings served.
  • Sociology functions in helping public relations professionals learn and understand their populations. As stated previously, the point of any public relations activity is to build relationships with populations, and this can only be done by learning the cultural nuancesthat make up the population. By doing so, organizations can be more culturally sensitive to their publics.
  • The need for organizations to know and understand their publics is very important for not only building an image but also in preparing for crisis management. Again, sociological tools that help practitioners analyze populations can help an organization present itself in the best possible light.
The United States Census population schedule of Allen County, Indiana in 1940.  (Allen County Census, Genealogical Society of Indiana)

Of the many populations that use sociological tools to study populations, the most common ones include:

  • Corporations use marketing information to compile information on products and/or services they plan to market to the public (you). Much of the information that is gathered is used to analyze sales and then establish a plan for creating a brand.
  • Corporations use sociological tools in reaching legislators and other policymakers all in the effort to change tax and regulatory issues.
  • Corporations also might use the information garnered for recruitment efforts.
  • Non-profit agencies might use sociological tools to raise awareness, raise funds, recruit or increase patronage of the organization. These organizations usually are government institutions, such as schools, universities, and health and human service organizations.
  • Politicians use sociological tools to campaign for your vote. Some of the activities that political campaigns might engage in to attract votes include raising money and promoting policies that are a part of the party platform.

These are just a few of the organizations that might use sociology in forming impressions about the populations with whom they build relationships.

What are the sociological methods used in studying populations for public relations?

While there are a number of measurements, the two main types of sociological research methods used to study populations are qualitative and quantitative.

Quantitative (involving numbers) research simply involves data collection, whether it involves online metrics, polling, and interviews. Qualitative (involving some characteristic) research data involves getting information by having participants fill out surveys (i.e. email and web-based surveys).

Because of technology, the amount of data that can be compiled can be done so quickly making researching a public much easier and efficient for organizations.


Public relations heavily relies on sociology to form impressions about the publics they serve. The importance of sociology is it gives public relations professionals a foundation from which to build relations with other organizations and potential publics.

By using sociological methods, organizations can more accurately address the needs of the populations they serve all in the effort of building long-term relationships.

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